the story: Aboard the Defiant, the crew suddenly finds itself in a crisis with the Jem'Hadar.
what it's all about: The thing about the Dominion, before the Dominion War officially broke out, is that it just kind of randomly appeared for about four seasons from time to time, and you never really knew what kind of episode it was going to be. The war itself was hardly inevitable. For four seasons, then, the Dominion for all intents and purposes was Deep Space Nine's answer to classic foes like the Romulans or Klingons. They didn't rise to the level of the Borg, as a threat of total annihilation, until the war. So these four seasons, rather than merely watch things develop, it's actually a chance to see what the Dominion was like when it was providing the occasional problems, like any other hostile force in the franchise.
That is to say, "Starship Down" is almost a kind of "Balance of Terror," or "Sleeping Dogs" (that one's from Enterprise), as much as it is a classic crisis episode, like Next Generation's "Disaster." That is to say, there are a lot of ways to watch this one, but it really boils down to watching the characters, for the first time this season, as they exist, which is a hallmark of the series, regardless of the matter at hand. We learn what they think of each other, how they fit in, what they're learning...Basically this is a character piece. Of course Quark is in the thick of it (antagonizing poor James Cromwell, buried unrecognizable in prosthetics, in his last franchise role before he finally becomes iconic in Star Trek: First Contact about a year later).
But if you really want to consider "Starship Down" in context, it's kind of the third season premiere, "The Search," stripped down to its essential component: the crew facing a real Dominion crisis for the first time, without having to worry about greater ramifications of any kind. I realize I've been complaining that this season has radically shifted away from the kind of serialized storytelling that was the best thing about the series, but at its best it also manages to tell an episodic story that's not only relevant to the serialization temporarily shunted to the background, but that still works as episodic material.
- franchise - The classic trope of the crew dealing with a sudden crisis that pins them down in isolated pockets.
- series - It worked with "Civil Defense" previously, and works again this time.
- character - A nice slice of how all these characters work in conjunction with each other.
essential- But totally necessary to understand anything else about the series.